Wedged into the schedule between two braces of designated events the field for this week’s Honda Classic was low on world top 30 performers and muttering could be heard – from the journeymen who feared the long term impact of a tiered PGA Tour, from the naysayers whose attention is held only by the stars and from pot-stirrers wondering what Greg Norman was thinking.
With 18 holes to play, there is but one big name still in the hunt for the title, a situation that would appear to confirm the fears of the doubters and cynics – and yet for so many golf fans this Sunday is set up to be special with a cast of players whose back stories provide the intrigue which draws them to this infuriating yet also redemptive sport.
Out front is Chris Kirk, two clear on 13-under 198 after rounds of 69-62-66. He’s a four-time winner on the PGA Tour but his tale is far from straightforward. Back in 2019 he took six months away from the game to deal with alcohol abuse and depression.
The following year he claimed a Korn Ferry Tour win in Florida, but by early 2021, playing on a medical exemption, he needed a top three finish in the Sony Open to keep his card – he finished in a tie for second. He was second after 18, 36 and 54 holes in this tournament last year before finishing seventh and opened 2023 with top three finishes in the Sony Open and The American Express.
A languid hitter, who has threatened to win the big two Florida titles (THE PLAYERS Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational), he has plenty of goodwill behind him and is looking to those recent performances rather than the wins for encouragement. “I didn’t win Sony or the Amex,” he said last night. “But I felt like I really played great and got pretty comfortable in that situation, in the heat. If I just continue to go do my job and go execute, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t turn out different this time.”
He has the tools to win this but 11/10 is a bit tight for me.
Behind him is Eric Cole – tipped by Ben Coley at 175/1 pre-tournament – a 34-year-old rookie and those few words tell only a little of his story.
He’s the son of Bobby Cole and Laura Baugh, the former a South African phenom who never achieved what his early efforts suggested he might, the latter a one-time darling of the LPGA. Cole himself has won over 50 titles on mini tours and been to Q School 11 times. His T15th last time out at Pebble Beach was his first PGA Tour top 20. It’s dizzying stuff.
Can he use all that winning experience to good effect? “It’s the same but it is different,” he admitted. “It’s a bigger stage and stuff, but the golf ball doesn’t know the difference.” The man hitting the ball does though. He is second favourite at 5/1 and I’d want more for a fellow facing such a huge opportunity.
Justin Suh is alone in third on 10-under. A former World No. 1 amateur who turned pro alongside Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff he’s always had to address his inability to keep pace with that trio. He won the Korn Ferry Tour Championship last September but T20th at the Farmers Insurance Open is his best of the campaign so far. Another player facing a big day, he’s 15/2 and again I’d want more.
Ben Taylor shares fourth on 9-under with Shane Lowry and the Florida-based Brit feels comfortable. “This is home for me,” he said. “This is the climate I’m the most used to and I enjoy playing in. My fiance, family, friends, members of the club – I’ve got them all out there and I’m excited for a fun weekend.”
He has top four finishes at the Houston and Sony Opens this season, both times heading into the final lap with a share of second. “It’s not new any more,” he insisted. “I think that will help settle the nerves on the weekend.” He’s the least favoured of the top five at 18/1.
My eye, however, is drawn to the man alongside him – SHANE LOWRY
The Irishman was second last year and unfortunate with it, getting caught in a bizarre little spell of furious wind and heavy rain on the final hole. Addressing those memories on Wednesday he said: “Obviously it was very disappointing. I had a two-shot lead with five to play and didn’t feel like I did much wrong.”
It was a bitter-sweet memory, however, because he added: “I remember it kick-started a consistent run. It gave me a lot of confidence for the year ahead.”
There are some who would turn their nose up at returning to the scene of such a blow but not Lowry. “Historically and generally, I like tough golf,” he said. “I dislike 25-under winning. When I get a course like this, I feel like I want to come play, and I feel like I can compete around here.”
He shared the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi earlier this year but slumped to T28th with a Sunday 76 and missed his next two cuts. He found form in the Genesis Invitational (T14th) and there is a reason why: “My coach came out and spotted I was a little bit off with my alignment on my setup. It led to bad shots. My iron play has been pretty good for a while so it was a shock to the system. It’s nice to get it back.”
His final round strategy? He’s taking the Nicklaus route: “If I can just hang around all day, hopefully I can give myself a chance coming down the stretch.”
He is also playing for his Uncle Jimmy, who passed away on Thursday morning. “A very sad week for our family and, to be honest, I wanted to go home on Thursday when I heard the news,” he said last night.
“A lot of people talked me out of it. I’m playing for him, his wife, his kids, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts and everyone at home because we’re a very close family. Everyone keeps telling me how proud he was of me over the last number of years, and hopefully I can do him proud. He was just a great man, great craic, and I loved him.”
Motivated in a number of ways, ready to tough it out, with his swing refined and happy sleeping in his own bed this week, he’s the pick at 13/2 with Unibet.
Posted at 0955 GMT on 26/02/23